This is a continuing series of posts about the "darker" side of the craft beer industry. To catch up on the topic visit the <a href="http://blindtigerpodcast.com/?p=260">last article</a> in the series devoted to pay for play. Also visit <a href="http://blindtigerpodcast.com/?cat=37">this page</a> for the entire series.
Last time we discussed the inverse relationship between the increase in the number of craft beer festivals and the decrease in quality of most of those festivals. How more and more beer festivals are becoming an excuse for unlimited and mindless drinking for drunkenness sake rather than for the discovery of new craft brews.
This time we are going to look into the ever increasing “herd mentality” around craft brewing.
The universe of craft brewing is an expansive as it is daunting. It is an ever expanding market with scores of new breweries and hundreds of new beers appearing in the market every year. This growing availability of beers in every shape, style, and price range is exceeded only by the craft brew subculture that surrounds it.
Were it not such a broad and confusing place to adventure there would be no need for podcasts such as ours. Yet an even greater tool is the ability to not just judge a beer by its cover but see its reputation, for free on the web, long before ever trying it yourself. Sites such as ratebeer.com, beeradvocate.com, and untappd.com pride themselves on having extensive libraries of beers described in pedantic detail and rated both professionally by experts but also by the community itself. Borrowing the model from rottentomatoes.com this allows the beer drinking community to judge not only on expert opinion but to break away from the ivory tower of professional critique and judge based on the “common” mans assessment.
The downside to this is two fold; the averaging of rating and the herd mentality.
Average Ratings: The problem with having scores of disparate users rate a beer is that in many ways the palate is a personal preference over objective reality. For every sweet, fruity wheat beer enthusiast there is a hop head. For every stout fanatic there is a lager lover. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. There is nothing wrong with personal preference in particular styles when it comes to beer but when averaging ratings across all preferences, across all palates, this leads to a world in which the vast majority of beers are only rated as average.
You may have experienced this yourself. I am an avid untappd user and I have found that when selecting beers the vast majority of beers come in at about 3.5 stars out of five. Beers that I think are worthy of one star and beers that I think are worthy of five are more often than not rated 3.5 stars. This happens because the law of large numbers would mean for every person who thinks a beer is delicious there is an equally emphatic user that the beer is disgusting. Thus all beers tend to average about the same level. Making the community ratings level generally useless.
This is further exacerbated by the next issue.
Herd mentality: Additionally with having ratings attached to beers that you have never tried before your opinion of beers are influenced long before you ever order let alone take a sip of a beer. When at a local tap-room decided what beer to have it is not uncommon to check the ratings of the available options that are new to you. Then after assessing the quality of the beers selecting a beer (hopefully) based on a combination of style preference, reputation, adventurousness, and rating. But most of these factors are based on the opinion more of others than experimentation.
Thus craft beer enthusiasts end up homogenizing on taste. Rather than trying unknown or unconventional beers there is a tendency to focus on the highly rated Sculpin IPAs or Surly Darknesses rather than focusing on what might very well be an amazing beer that has been rated poorly by others due to differences in palate.
My own preferences tend to keep my away from witbiers as I generally don’t like them. When I am somewhat impressed with a witbier I tend to rate it a 1.5 or 2 star rating. What I take away from a wheat beer is unconventional at best, heresy at worst. If I listened to the recommendations on rating sites I might give up completely on witbiers altogether. My thoughts on Blue Moon, Hoegaarden, or Shocktop are clearly outside the mainstream.
That said in my experimentations I have stumbled upon what I thought were amazing witbiers. I was blown away by De Brouwers Brussels White (Blanche) and rated it 5 stars. Yet the untappd rating for the beer was the overly represented 3.5 stars. Normally this would have kept me from even trying the beer in the first place but I glad that I decided to try this beer as I found a witbier I really enjoyed.
All this to say that the world of craft beer is a rich and complicated tapestry of flavor. It may be beneficial to take a map while exploring this world but the only way you will truly learn to fully love the landscape is if you trail blaze as often as you follow recommendations.
While craft beer may be considered an art form it doesn’t mean you should start with the Beer Advocate’s top 250 list and only drink those. Otherwise you might miss a fantastic diamond in the rough.